December 2016        

Government’s contempt for fisheries and the environment

Vincent Byrne

Atlantic is a film directed by Risteard Ó Domhnaill, who also directed The Pipe. It deals with the capitalist exploitation of a natural resource, the damage to the ecosystem, and the impact on three fishing communities, in Newfoundland, Norway, and Ireland.
     In Newfoundland the cod population collapsed from overfishing, with the result that a moratorium was placed on fishing in 1993. The Canadian government had been warned that overfishing and the use of factory ships would bring this situation about. The government had no interest in fishing: its interest was in farming. It gave factory ships access to Canadian waters on the grounds that countries such as Spain would buy Canada’s farm produce, such as wheat.
     The collapse of the fishing industry meant devastation for local communities. An increase in the price of oil made it economical to mine for oil in Canadian waters. This led to employment in fishing communities. A fall in the oil price meant lay-off on the rigs. The fall-back for some workers was fishing, as the fish stock had partially recovered, thanks to the moratorium.
     The situation in Norway is nearly the opposite. Norwegian waters are rich in oil. Here the government sought a share of the oil from the beginning. It set up a company, Statoil, with two-thirds state ownership. The result is that Norway has become a wealthy country. Now the original oilfields are being exhausted, and there is mounting pressure by the oil industry to explore for oil in the pristine waters near the Arctic. This will intrude on fishing grounds.
     The method of oil exploration is by the use of seismic underwater explosions. This is devastating for the habitats of the fish stock. Norway did not join the European Union, as it considered the price of giving up its waters too high compared with what it would get in return. The debate continues in Norway between those who want the wealth from oil and those who want to maintain a sustainable fishing industry.
     The Irish section was depressing. When Ireland joined the EEC the Government was warned that the country was giving away its fishing too cheaply. Legal access to the wealthy fishing resources of Irish waters was the prize for countries like Spain and the Netherlands. Despite the fact that the area of Irish water is far greater than its land area, politicians had no interest in fishing. Farmers had an effective lobbying group, in contrast to fishermen.
     When Ireland joined the EEC, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and others were able to legalise their access to Irish waters, which previously had been illegal (they called it their “historical right”—in fact theft). The introduction of quotas has wiped out much of Irish fishing. Inshore fishermen have to watch as factory ships working twenty-four hours a day rape Irish waters.
     The Government has continued to show its utter contempt for the Irish environment and especially that of the sea. As recently as 14 November it received a quota of 199 tons for catching the round-nose grenadier. This deep-sea fish is already endangered from high-technology trawlers damaging its habitat. Scientists believe its numbers have declined by 99 per cent, and that it will disappear completely if the practice continues. Ireland will use the quota to allow French and Spanish commercial trawlers to drag the seabed with huge nets, destroying coral reef and the habitats of other deep-sea species.
     The Government has learnt nothing from history and consequently is condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past in a continuous cycle of subservience to its political masters in Strasbourg and London.

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